Debbie's Sunset

North Cascades, Washington

The slope traverse through scattered larch, pine, and fir was sprinkled with rock outcrops, shallow gullies, and short, angled ramps. Route finding was fun and easy as I edged my boots in the dry, sandy soil. Overhead, checkerboard clouds moved across parts of the sky with purpose, but most of the sky was clear, and sunshine warmed my face in the cool air as it lighted the landscape into a gorgeous morning.

It was the seventh day of a good trip, but I hadn’t yet decided my destination for this day. I had eyed a high point in the direction of my exit the previous evening, but as I crossed a stream-filled gully and stopped for water, the freshly sprouted larch forest around me felt very inviting. I continued an ascending traverse, now on heather, but kept stopping to look up into the nearby alpine, and marvel at how good this place felt. Winding around to the broad ridge I would descend were I to continue toward my exit, I looked up, and in a moment, decided I wanted to climb to the top of the knoll and stay.

Scattered altocumulus in the morning presaged an afternoon of increasing clouds, as vapor began to condense low around mountains to the west. Within a few hours, lenticular clouds began to appear, and cloud building accelerated. As they formed, they gradually lifted upward, joining together to knit themselves across the sky in a ragged, patchy congregation.

Sunlight shot narrow beams through diminishing breaches to highlight ever smaller parts of the green valley floors, and descending ridgelines below. The clouds had been moving swiftly all day, and motion filled the sky as their volumes grew, engulfing the western horizon, and advancing steadily. They raced overhead, flying toward the more arid eastern slope, where they repeatedly encountered, and pushed against another evident air mass. It was a magic trick, as clouds condensed out of nothing to the west, flew overhead, and then in stages, dissipated into nothing to the east. Views through this tumultuous sky were wonderful, as I roamed from one viewpoint to another, decked out in raingear mostly for the winds that increased steadily. As evening approached, the clouds above me broke wide open, revealing much higher cloud formations. The main range to the west remained fully socked–in through the evening, but a remarkable light would soon shoot over the top of all of those clouds, illuminating the eastern sky.

The light came quickly in a building wave that stunned me with its color and spectacle. An incredible, atmospheric green permeated large expanses of the sky. Deeply refracted yellows and oranges touched the clouds, and a bright, engulfing glow radiated down upon the land below. Wind sculpted lines traced through the clouds, as in the distance, bordered columns of light emanated vertically up from the eastern horizon into the sky. The high clouds changed their forms continuously, as did the entire constellation before me. Refractions and reflections shifted with them in bizarre and wonderful ways. It was almost like watching Northern Lights. The green color in the sky amazed and dumbfounded me. I remember looking up at it with a smile bigger than my face, and asking out loud, “what is that?… what is that?”. I had never seen a sunset quite like this one before.

The next morning offered a brief, beautiful window of sunrise to the east, amidst clouds wafting over the knoll. Attractive broken–cloud views held me in the morning. But eventually I broke camp and made the hike out that day under overcast skies. I arrived home to find that urgent messages had been left for me. I learned that my sister had died in an accident the day before. Later, when I had time to reflect, I thought about that day on the knoll and my sister’s passing. I will always think of this as Debbie’s sunset.